There are no special effects, no gory close-ups, and no harrowing flashbacks, yet Liza Johnson’s debut feature-length, Return, may be one of the most thought-provoking war films in recent years.
The director, who made a name for herself in the contemporary art world with her short films, focuses on the aftermath of fighting abroad rather than the action that comes before it. There’s one other twist: The person returning from a military tour of duty in the Middle East is a wife and mother of two (played perfectly by Linda Cardellini). While the film is light on cliché, it captures the uncertainty—from family drama to economic hardship—that many Americans face today. With Meredith Vieira onboard as executive producer and the 2011 Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes selecting it as the lone US film screened, Return marks Johnson’s official arrival in the commercial film world.
ELLE.com spoke with the director about the inspiration for the film—and why Scooby-Doo 2 isn’t as bad as you think.
ELLE: With so many war films already out there, why throw your hat into the ring? Was there a story that you felt wasn’t being told?
Liza Johnson: That’s a great question. I guess for me it started with a friend of mine, he told me about his efforts to stay married when he came back from his military deployment. Military culture and civilian culture can be really separate. You hear about statistics, like, “Twenty-two people killed in a car bomb,” or policy-style fighting, but if you’re not in a military culture you don’t hear that kind of intimate account, you don’t hear about people trying to navigate that. It just felt like it’s not always told in stories that are war movies. And for good reason—they don’t take place in combat, or they’re more melodramatic about the experience of returning soldiers. But this everyday account made me very interested.
ELLE: Did you always envision the story featuring a female soldier?
LJ: I’m not sure how this fictional character turned into a female character. When I spoke with men and women, there were a lot of things they had in common and then I think there are things that are very specific to this character in general. And definitely there are aspects of her experience that are informed by being female, where people might respond differently—problems that come up for her and solutions that she finds to them are specific to her being a female character. The fact that she’s separated from her children is surprising—I get that response a lot when I screen [the film]. Perhaps it encourages people to view the story in a different way.
ELLE: Going from working on art shorts to a feature-length film, did you find that you had to shift your filmmaking approach at all?
LJ: I did a little bit, in terms of trying to write a plot, because if you’re a conceptual artist, the driving question is always, What will this mean? Or, How will this feel? When you’re writing a narrative film, the driving question is always, What will happen? In that way, it was an important shift.
ELLE: Linda Cardellini is so natural as the main protagonist, Kelli. Was it a hard role to cast?
LJ: I was so excited when I found her. She’s very natural—people think she is like that, but that’s actually her craft. The first person we cast was Michael Shannon, who people pretty much acknowledge is a good actor. In a way it was a double dare, because it’s like [the person who plays Kelli] needs to be good—and she needs to stand up to him. People think this is funny, but on the day when I met her people told me to watch Scooby-Doo 2, and she’s great in that! I saw her do physical work and make smart choices about how to express her character. I thought, if she can do that, she can do my movie.